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By John T. Pafford, G.I.R.S. Associate Editor

Some of the most easily recognizable portrayals of Mississippian art are the large stone figural effigy pipes that have been well-documented in archaeological literature, depicting males, females, and animals in differing poses. These sculptures, recovered from contexts on Mississippian and Caddoan sites as far-ranging as Illinois, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, represent some of the highest levels of artistic achievement reached by Mississippian artisans. Although previously thought to be temporally diverse and created at differing locales, recent studies have shown that these remarkable sculptures, in all likelihood, originated from a single source, located in Illinois at Cahokia (Reilly 2004:132). With their diverse and bold artistic expression, these figurines have stirred the imagination of all who have viewed them and have led to groundbreaking attempts to derive meaning from the symbology and iconographic images portrayed. Recent studies by Reilly (2004) and Brown (2004, 2007), as well as other researchers, have revealed that many of these sculptures can be interpreted within the context of the Native American-derived Morning Star myth cycle and represented particular supernatural heroes/deities within the story. As such, these figural effigies represented the embodiment of a belief system and the personification of power for Mississippian elites. In order to more fully understand the basis for these arguments, the particulars of what is known concerning these sculptures and the reasoning behind these conclusions will be discussed.


Most of the contextual data for these figurines has come from well-documented finds on Mississippian sites in the American Bottom, centering in and around Cahokia, and dating within the Stirling Phase (A.D. 1050-1150) (Reilly 2004:131). The reddish brown material from which these sculptures were created, although previously thought to be bauxite, has been positively identified as flint clay, a sedimentary formation that has been sourced from southeastern Missouri, not far from Cahokia (Reilly 2004:132; Welch 2006:14). The fact that the earliest known context of these sculptures comes from Stirling Phase occupations at Cahokia and the source of the raw material from which these pieces were made also originated near Cahokia’s locale has presented a strong argument for the likelihood that these pieces were first created at Cahokia and later distributed to elites at outlying Mississippian centers (Brown 2004:113-114; Reilly 2004:132). Interestingly, these figurines were not originally intended for use as pipes and were created as freestanding sculptures; however, following their distribution to other Mississippian elites, these sculptures were retooled for ritual purposes (Reilly 2004:135-136).

Assuming a Cahokian Stirling Phase origin for these figurines, the question then turns to the meaning or symbology that can be derived or associated with these remarkable sculptures. Well-known examples of these figurines depict varied poses and in some cases easily recognizable activities portrayed on other Mississippian art objects, such as the St. Louis Science Center’s Chunkey Player effigy pipe from Muskogee County, Oklahoma and the Smithsonian Institution’s Conquering Warrior effigy pipe from LeFlore County, Oklahoma. The themes depicted in these pieces are pervasive in Mississippian art, revealing the activities of chunkey game playing and the taking of a trophy through decapitation. Although the activities associated with these two examples can be identified, the meaning associated with these pieces and other known flint clay figurines has not been surmised until recent years. Kent Reilly (2004) and other researchers have focused on interpreting the meaning behind these sculptures and associated pieces of Mississippian iconographic art through intensive study, coordinated at numerous workshop conferences (Reilly and Garber 2007:ix-x). As a result of these studies, it has been shown that these figurines can be viewed within the context of the Morning Star myth cycle and its associated heroes and supernatural cosmic deities (Brown 2004; Reilly 2004, 2007). Moreover, a number of these sculptures can be associated or identified with a given highlight or main sequence point within the story (Reilly 2004:132).


In the Morning Star myth, the hero, Morning Star, youngest of ten brothers, names himself as He-Who-Is­Hit-With-Deer-Lungs, yet he does not reveal himself or his supernatural powers. Eventually, however, he proclaims himself as Red Horn or He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-In­His-Ears (Reilly 2004:132). Later in the episodic adventure, Morning Star and his companions defeat the giants in a ball game contest, and Morning Star takes the giant chieftainess and a human womas as his trophies and wives (Reilly  2004:133).  However, in a later game with the giants, Morning Star and his companions lose and are killed, but succeed in cheating death with the help of his two sons.  After many other adventures, Morning Star’s companions return home and resume their animal forms and embody the power represeneted by their various species (Reilly  2004:133).

Reilly (2004) has related each of the above episodic sequences to differing flint clay sculptures. For instance, the Crouching Man effigy pipe found at Shiloh Mounds, Tennessee (Fig. 1) has been postulated as representative of Morning Star as yet unrevealed, lacking characteristic identifying features such as clothing (Reilly 2004:133). Also, although Reilly does not associate it as such, the Twin Mounds effigy pipe from Ballard County, Kentucky (Fig. 2), could certainly fall within this same episode with its comparable lack of distinguishing markers. Next, Reilly (2004) identifies the well-known University of Arkansas “Big Boy” or “Resting Warrior” effigy pipe from LeFlore County, Oklahoma, as Morning Star revealed with his characteristic long braid of hair and long-nosed god maskette earrings. The aforementioned Chunkey Player effigy pipe represents Morning Star as a ball player and the Conquering Warrior pipe depicts Morning Star taking a trophy head (Reilly 2004:133). Reilly also presents the likelihood that the Westbrook pipe (Fig. 3), found in Desha County, Arkansas, represents one of the wives of Morning Star, known as Corn Mother, who is identified as the giver of plants and associated horticultural knowledge (Reilly 2004:133-134). This conclusion is evidenced by the depiction of sunflower and corn plants springing forth from the figurine’s upturned and open palms, while the figure itself appears to be actually emerging from a lidded basket, a feature that could represent the sacred bundle of the Corn Maiden cult (Reilly 2004:134). Reilly has also associated other flint clay figurines with various sequences within the Morning Star myth and states that future study may lead to relating other existing flint clay images to events within the story (Reilly 2004:133-136).


In conclusion, the case has been presented that these flint clay figurines represented iconographic representations of the Morning Star belief system and as such, served to validate the authority of Mississippian elites by providing visible means of supernatural sanction (Reilly 2004:136). As these sculptures were later distributed to outlying elites at Mississippian centers, their function changed and they were modified for ritual use as pipes. Reilly believes that this transfer of Cahokian symbols of power represented the possible adoption of outlying communities where they were found and were used to strengthen alliances with Cahokia. In turn, the elites of other Mississippian communities utilized these sculptures, which represented supernatural cosmic powers, to legitimize their own status as rulers and embody the powers they represented (Reilly 2004:236).